Tribute to a muralist: Exhibit to reveal the genius of late Bay Area artist Bernard Zakheim

In a section of the mural that rings the Coit Tower foyer, amid New Deal–era images of California farmland and bustling cityscapes, Bernard Zakheim’s library scene stands out.

Earnest men and women, dressed in shades of mauve and teal, read hungrily to improve their minds. One man pulls “Das Kapital” off a shelf.

Another man –– Zakheim himself –– studies the Torah. Look closely enough and you can read the Hebrew text.

Over a career that spanned much of the 20th century, Bay Area artist Bernard Zakheim (1896-1985) routinely drew on the forces that animated his life: Judaism, with its promise of justice; and socialism, which he saw as the fulfillment of that justice.

The late artist is the subject of a new exhibition, “Bernard Zakheim: the Art of Prophetic Justice,” which will be on display at San Francisco’s Jazz Heritage Center from Sunday, Oct. 17, through the end of 2010.

Presented by Lehrhaus Judaica and funded by the Koret Foundation, the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation and the Fleishhacker Foundation, this is the most comprehensive display of Zakheim’s art ever assembled, including works from every phase of his career.

A photographic history of Zakheim’s life and work will be showcased in Center’s Koret Heritage Lobby during the full length of the exhibit through Dec. 30, while some 40 original Zakheim paintings will be displayed in the Lush Life Gallery from Oct. 17 through Nov. 30.

It’s a big tribute to an artist who made a huge cultural impact on the Bay Area.

“In some ways it’s the second coming of Bernard Zakheim,” says historian Fred Rosenbaum, who put together the show with professional curator Roseanna Sun. “He was productive and prolific, but he just didn’t get the attention he deserved.”

Many people in the Bay Area know the Coit Tower fresco mural, as well as his murals for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (painted in 1933) and one at the UCSF Medical Center’s Toland Hall (1935).


Coit Tower mural

But the Polish-born Zakheim was more than a painter of fresco murals, even though he studied at the feet of Mexico’s Diego Rivera, arguably the 20th century’s most esteemed muralist. Zakheim was also a sculptor, a farmer, a storyteller, an occasional bar-fighter and, to his admirers, a modern-day prophet.


“If people want to survive the 21st century, they should hear the ram’s horn from Bernard Zakheim’s consciousness,” says his son, Nathan Zakheim, 68, a Los Angeles art restorer who maintains a warehouse of his father’s work. “He left his bloody handprints on the dungeon wall.”

Rosenbaum curated last year’s popular “Jews of the Fillmore” exhibit and also wrote “Cosmopolitans,” a history of Bay Area Jewry. So he had already done extensive research on Zakheim and his murals.

What he did not know was the breadth of Zakheim’s work in the years after World War II. Rosenbaum assumed Zakheim had faded into obscurity. Instead, living on his Sebastapol apple farm, Zakheim mentored young artists, railed against injustice and produced fine art almost until his death in 1985.

Rosenbaum came to learn that Zakheim had warned of the coming Holocaust before it occurred, and began painting harrowing Holocaust images immediately after the war. He found out Zakheim was an early Zionist, a civil rights champion and a sage to Northern California hippies.

“He was a representative figure of those 89 years he lived,” Rosenbaum says, “from  the Chassidic boy in Warsaw, all the way to the counterculture in Sonoma. Not just representative but visionary.”

Born in Warsaw in 1896 to a long line of Chassidic rabbis and scholars, Bernard Baruch Zakheim had little patience for the fusty piety of his elders. He was a rebel practically from the time he could walk, talk and wield a brush.

He dropped out of yeshiva, enrolled in art school and soon fell in with Polish revolutionaries. With the outbreak of World War I, he fought the Germans, endured a spell in a POW camp and, by 1920 had decided to flee the Old World in search of the new.

Zakheim and his first wife ended up in San Francisco, and though he spoke no English at first, he ended up a wealthy furniture designer.

That didn’t mean he set art aside. In fact, he left San Francisco to study in Paris and also to study in Mexico with Rivera, whose depictions of peasant life came to define social realism.

The Mexican experience proved pivotal, not only determining Zakheim’s genre of choice, but also cementing his connection between art and politics. “For him there was no divide,” Rosenbaum notes. “He tried to use art as a political weapon.”

Zakheim also modeled Rivera’s appreciation for his Mexican roots by embracing his own Jewish heritage, and making it essential to his art, if no longer his religious practice. “Rivera taught me one thing and that was every artist must work out of his own roots,” Zakheim was quoted as saying in the late 1930s. “Rivera himself painted out of the Mexican soil where he lived.”


“Abraham and Isaac Sacrifice,” 1959

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, federal money from the Public Works of Art Project was set aside for a mural inside the Coit Tower monument atop Telegraph Hill. Herbert Fleishhacker, who headed the Coit Advisory Committee, hired Zakheim to co-organize the project.


“During the Depression, no one was hit harder than the artists,” Rosenbaum says. “Many were unemployed and desperate. The mural was a way to employ them and create public works.”

In 1934, 26 artists — each earning a dollar an hour for their work — worked for six months on the 3,700-square-foot. Total cost: around $25,000. But not all went smoothly with Zakheim and his benefactors.

Zakheim’s depiction of his friend, artist John Langley Howard, reaching for a copy of “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx, annoyed the decidedly pro-capitalist Fleishhacker. The artist twice refused to remove the image. Ultimately, Zakheim prevailed.

Today, of course, all is forgiven. The Fleishhacker Foundation not only co-funded the current exhibit, it also supported the 2004 restoration of Zakheim’s mural “The Jewish Wedding,” commissioned by the JCC in San Francisco in 1933. Of all his murals, none was more influenced by his Jewish roots.

The 10-by-10-foot mural, located above a JCC staircase, presents a striking tableau. A merry band of revelers, tumblers and musicians celebrates the nuptials of a demure Jewish couple. They’re a diverse bunch, some with African and Asian features, representing the family of man.

When the old JCC was slated for demolition to make room for the new facility, extracting the mural wasn’t easy. It had been painted on a load-bearing wall and had to be carefully cut out, crated and lifted away by crane in September 2001. It sat   

in storage for months until the new JCC neared completion.

Equally compelling are Zakheim’s paintings depicting the Holocaust, some completed as early as 1946. Long before the world woke up to the extent of Nazi crimes, Zakheim, who lost many family members to the Nazis, expressed his shock and sorrow on canvas.

He painted scenes of Nazi terror (such as the 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar in Kiev), of Jewish partisans, and even of the defense of the young State of Israel.

His sculpture “Genocide,” made of six large wooden figures, was one of the earliest Holocaust memorials in the United States. It initially was installed at the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, and now is at the Sinai Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles.

“He was unlike other American Jewish artists,” Rosenbaum says. “He confronted the Shoah. He also was one of the first to embrace Zionism wholeheartedly. He understood it as the hope after the Holocaust.”

In 1941 Zakheim bought an apple orchard in Sebastapol, which he named Farm Arts. There he built a studio and opened his home to an endless parade of artists, acolytes and bohemians. He worked as an upholsterer to support his second wife and kids, but art always came first.

Much of his output in the 1950s and ’60s centered on biblical themes, with figures such as Eve, Moses, Salome and Isaiah the subjects of his canvases. He also painted scenes from American Jewish history, such as 17th century Jewish immigrants arriving in New Amsterdam.

Nathan Zakheim, one of four Zakheim children, has fond and vivid memories of his boyhood on the farm.

“I looked like a wolf boy raised by wolves,” he says. “My father was a very dramatic person. He would take us on his knee and tell stories. But with him it wasn’t just a story. It was mural, a 3-D experience. He would spin these psychedelic tales of sailors, Arabian nights, and the way he spoke was so evocative, we could see everything.”

With his progressive political leanings, Zakheim took a strong interest in the civil rights movement and the anti–Vietnam War movement. Because he refused to sign the loyalty oath typical of the McCarthy era, Zakheim struggled financially. But there was always food on the table and art on the walls.

And most of Zakheim’s pictures had something that spoke to the Jewish heart.

“My dad raged he was an atheist,” says Nathan, “but he never gave up his mysticism. You will find hardly a painting of his without a tallis or some Orthodox Jewish vestige in it somewhere.”

Zakheim never stopped painting and sculpting, though eventually old age forced him to move from his Sonoma County farm and into the Jewish Home of San Francisco. He died there in 1985.

Rosenbaum is pleased the new exhibit will be at the Jazz Heritage Center — a nonprofit entity that is part jazz museum, part jazz cultural center and part jazz art gallery.

The facility is supported by a lead grant from the Koret Foundation, and it’s also in the heart of the Fillmore District, the area was once home to the city’s Jewish community. Last year, the center hosted the “Jews of the Fillmore” exhibit.

“I want people to see [the Fillmore District] as becoming once again a vibrant hub of culture and Jewish culture,” he says. “That was the case in the mid-1930s when Zakheim was in his prime.”

For admirers of his work, including his son, Zakheim is still in his prime.

“He  had a transcendent vision,” says Nathan Zakheim of his father. “Call him a visionary expressionist.”


Exhibition to open Oct. 17

“Zakheim: The Art of Prophetic Justice” runs from Sunday, Oct. 17, through Dec. 30 in the Jazz Heritage Center’s Koret Heritage Lobby. Also, from Oct. 17 to Nov. 30, original Zakheim paintings will be displayed in the center’s Lush Life Gallery.

A public opening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20. Following a reception, historian Fred Rosenbaum will speak about Zakheim at 8 p.m.

Rosenbaum also will participate in the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s panel on the WPA murals at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21. Also, contemporary art specialist Susanne Strimling will speak about Zakheim at 11 a.m. Nov. 14 at the Jazz Heritage Center.

Admission to the exhibit is free every day, including the special events. The center is located at 1320 Fillmore St., S.F. For more information, call (415) 255-7745 or visit www.jazzheritagecenter.org.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.